Victim’s father: ‘Justice was not served’ in Hutton trial

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District Attorney Ben David and Assistant DA Lillian Salcines Bright, center, stood with Hannah Connaway's family to express their disappointment in the court's ruling on the case. Photo by Hilary Snow.
District Attorney Ben David and Assistant DA Lillian Salcines Bright, center, stood with Hannah Connaway’s family to express their disappointment in the court’s ruling on the case. Photo by Hilary Snow.

Michael Hutton will serve two to 15 more months in jail for nearly beating his former girlfriend, Hannah Connaway, to death last May and leaving her with a permanent brain injury.

Following the judge’s dismissal of two charges–attempted first degree murder and kidnapping, both felonies–Hutton, now 20, pleaded guilty in New Hanover County Superior Court Monday to four remaining charges–two counts of assault inflicting serious bodily injury, assault by strangulation and misdemeanor assault on a female. The jury of seven women and five men who had heard the case was then dismissed.

Judge John Nobles then sentenced Hutton to 20 to 33 months. Hutton, who has been in the county jail since May 25, 2014, will receive credit for time served.

Hannah’s father, Shawn Connaway, said the punishment did not fit the crime.

“I am not satisfied with the court’s ruling. I am stunned and shocked by it, to be honest,” Shawn Connaway said. “My daughter will be altered for the rest of her life; he’s going to be out of jail soon…I’m baffled and my family is baffled. And the community is going to be outraged.”

Hutton’s trial got underway last Monday with his admission of responsibility for his attack on Connaway, and a plea of not guilty to the attempted murder and kidnapping, as well as felony assault inflicting serious bodily injury to the victim’s genital area.

While Hutton acknowledges he assaulted then 17-year-old Hannah repeatedly in the head with his closed fist–an attack that required emergency brain surgery–the defense contends that he never intended at any point during the attack to end her life.

The state rested its case Friday after a visibly shaken and tearful Hannah took the stand to speak about her life since the incident.

Monday, criminal defense attorney Miriam Thompson made motions to dismiss the three charges Hutton had been fighting in front of a jury. Nobles denied the motion on the assault on Hannah’s genital area, but allowed the others.

Thompson said prosecutors had not met the burden of proof on the charges of kidnapping and attempted murder. Reading aloud from the state’s indictment, she said Hutton never unlawfully confined Hannah in his home for the purpose of “terrorizing” her.

She cited the testimony of Hannah’s friend, Claudene Williams, who witnessed the beating. Williams said on the stand that Hannah and Hutton entered Hutton’s home together from the backyard before the assault began.

“There was no evidence that she was removed from the area,” Thompson said, noting Williams said Hannah also was able to flee the house through an unlocked door during the incident. “There is no testimony of things being thrown around, of furniture being thrown around, no phone calls to 911…It doesn’t show evidence of terrorizing. I’m sure it wasn’t a good situation but we don’t know what was going on inside that house.”

“Clearly we have confinement here,” District Attorney Ben David argued. “Claudene Williams clearly said this defendant closed the door behind him. He locked it…[Hannah] could be heard screaming the whole time. There was blood splatter on…the walls. If that’s not terror, I don’t know what is.”

The defense further maintained there was insufficient evidence to support the state’s attempted murder charge. According to the jury instruction on that charge, Thompson said the prosecution had to show that the defendant intended to commit the crime and, beyond that, his actions during the crime were “calculated and designed” to kill Hannah but “fell short of the completed offense.”

“The evidence presented is that Michael Hutton had his hands on Hannah Connaway’s neck to keep her quiet. And when she got quieter…he got off of her. Nobody pulled him off of her and he wasn’t stopped by anyone except himself,” Thompson said. “What he did was wrong. He beat her up and said mean things to her. But he got off of her.”

Williams testified that while he was choking Hannah, Hutton told her to shut her friend up or he would “permanently put her to sleep.”

David scoffed at Thompson’s argument that Hutton showed restraint in his attack.

“Let’s just ask a simple question: Is Hannah Connaway alive today because of the mercy of this defendant or because of the skill of Dr. Alsina?” David said.

George Alsina, a New Hanover Regional Medical Center neurosurgeon, performed the emergency surgery required to relieve critical pressure and swelling in Hannah’s brain. Alsina testified Friday that when he saw Hannah in the early morning hours of May 24, 2014, she was in a life-or-death situation that required immediate action.

“If you’re doing all of these things with your bare hands, what else can you infer but an intent to kill?” David asked, adding that Hutton appeared from the onset to show “no remorse” about his assault on Connaway.

Related story: First responders: Hutton was impaired but coherent after assault

Hutton–who Thompson said at the start of the trial would take the stand in his own defense–did not make any statements in the courtroom.

But Nobles did acknowledge the emotional suffering of both families involved.

“This is the greatest tragedy that can happen to a parent…I’d much rather leave the decision up to a jury and stay out of it, but I also must follow the law as I believe it is written,” Nobles noted.

David said he was not “happy with the legal ruling” but added that his office would strengthen its resolve to prosecute such domestic violence cases moving forward. The state cannot appeal an adverse ruling such as the one made in Hutton’s trial.

“Whenever this defendant gets out of jail, Hannah has a life sentence,” he said.

Saying “justice was not served,” Shawn Connaway told reporters after the sentencing that he and his family “look forward to a closing” of a difficult chapter in their lives.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at hilary.s@portcitydaily.com.